- William James on Ethics and Faith by Michael R. Slater
Through an analysis and explication of William James’s writings, such as “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” and The Varieties of Religious Experience, Michael Slater successfully defends the argument “that on James’s view morality cannot be finally separated from religion, because there are moral goods that only religious faith—and in some cases, only the objects of religious faith—can plausibly bring about” (7). Slater advances this argument by making two significant claims concerning James’s work. First, James’s ethics require “the possession of a morally strenuous attitude” (7). By emphasizing our attitudes and dispositions, rather than the calculations or consequences of our moral actions, Slater places James within the tradition of virtue theory. Slater’s second claim concerns how James’s philosophy of religion necessitates achieving a “liberatory sense of intimacy with an unseen order . . ., what I term metaphysical intimacy” (7)—which means that James maintains a version of realism concerning the objects of religious faith. Slater argues that James’s religious realism leads to his metaphysical realism, and his reflections of intimacy arise from James’s metaphysically-centered philosophy of religion.
Slater’s analysis of James’s “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” addresses the question: ‘how does James’s essay contribute to the discourse on religious ethics?’ James’s essay contributes to religious ethics, according to Slater, for two reasons. First, James constructs “a non-reductive naturalistic” approach to ethics—which puts forth James’s balanced “humanistic and naturalistic views on moral psychology, moral properties, and the basis of morality” (71). Second, James puts forth “a supernaturalistic religious” ethics that identifies the limitations of a strictly naturalistic philosophical ethics as well as proposes ways to overcome “those limits through the adoption of certain religious postulates” (71). Slater’s book becomes quite helpful in explaining of the current terms of analytic moral philosophy, and he places James’s “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” within analytic moral philosophy. For instance, Slater observes, “in addition to affirming an externalist view of reasons, James is also a motivational internalist: that is, he holds the view that there cannot be a moral obligation with a corresponding moral motivation on the part of the agent” (77). Slater continues, “In particular, [End Page 285] James’s motivational internalism takes an anti-rationalist form” in the sense that “having a moral obligation necessarily involves having a passional and volitional response to a claim, and not merely understanding the conceptual content or truth of a claim” (77–78). The result of James’s emphasis on the passions and the will within his moral reasoning displays that while there are “objective reasons for action which do not depend upon the internal motives of individual agents,” moral agents cannot sense “a moral obligation without also having a moral motivation to act on or honor that obligation” (78). In other words, obligations are not the disinterested duties of Kantian deontology; James demonstrates that obligations, themselves, require passion towards and reflective reasoning within moral action. James’s moral reasoning provides a traditionally virtue-centered approach to motivation for living a strenuous moral life.
Additionally, Slater argues that James maintains “religious faith . . . [as] a necessary condition for moral strenuousness and complete human flourishing” (88). The connection here concerns the question of motivation: “the maximal degree of moral motivation in a person [is] achieved only through religious faith” (88). According to Slater, “James grants that non-religious persons . . . have some degree of “moral energy” apart from belief in God”; however, their level of “moral energy and the adequacy of their moral perspective fall short of the theist’s” (88–89). In sum, religious faith enables “the possession of a morally strenuous attitude.”
Slater’s interpretation of James’s Varieties contains promise due to his ability to interweave James’s metaphysics with his moral reasoning. For instance, Slater’s description of James’s understanding of “unseen orders” turns on what it means—in an Aristotelian sense—to model ourselves on “extraordinary...